Who Is the Marginal Person on a Bike, part 2

Who is the marginal person on a bike? I use the word “marginal” to describe the very next person getting on a bicycle. I want to know who this person is, because as a bicycle advocate, I am hoping that more people get on bicycles, and I would like to know who they are and what their needs are so I can support them with my advocacy.

When I went over this previously, I suggested a couple possible alternatives for occupational or residential criteria to identify the marginal person. I have thought about this a little more since then, and it seems to me that the most intriguing way to look at this person is to ask whether he or she is riding for recreation, or riding for errands and commuting. As I see it, advocacy efforts for each of the two genres of bicycle use are diverging, like Darwin’s finches.

Recreational bicyclists are tiresomely described as riding expensive bicycles and wearing bright, stretchy clothes. Bicyclists who ride to get from place to place many times choose to emulate elderly Northern Europeans, wearing suits, carrying umbrellas, and riding bicycles with 19th-century accouterments like skirt guards and enclosed chains. In terms of advocacy efforts, recreational riding has the three-foot passing rule, which is steadily making its way across the U.S., and transportation bicyclists boast of efforts to create protected bike lanes. Lost in the mix are the so-called invisible cyclists, the immigrants without drivers’ licenses who are bicycling to get to work from home without benefit of lights, reflective uniforms, or rear luggage racks.

Why is this important to determine who is the marginal person on a bike? Because bicycling is a technique, and the people who are on bicycles are using the technique. The marginal person on a bike, in one view, is the person who just learned to ride a bicycle. This is a person who is now riding, who wasn’t riding this morning. To follow through with the argument, in order to get more people on bicycles, it would make sense to teach them to ride.

The flip side of this is that riding a bicycle doesn’t mean that the person is going to be running errands on his or her bicycle. Is that OK? Reading Michael Andersen’s blog post about People For Bikes’ Isabella, the tween whom we envision using our coming-soon bicycle infrastructure, I see her world as described in the blog post to be weirdly utilitarian. It’s full of destinations, but the journeys don’t merit a mention.

I am the father of two small children, and I can confidently aver that the journey is often the most exciting part of the trip. So I’m confused. Isabella needs bicycle infrastructure so she can get from place to place, but not so she can actually enjoy riding a bicycle. As Andersen points out in his blog post, “The ultimate goal of the Green Lane Project — and, we’d argue, of all modern bicycle infrastructure — is to get Isabella where she wants to go.” There’s no mention of active transportation here, so presumably Isabella’s bicycle and her neighborhood’s Modern Bicycle Infrastructure is just a placeholder until we can get the magic-carpet thing worked out.

As I have mentioned before, it is bizarre to discuss bicycle advocacy without the slightest nod toward the joy inherent in bicycle technique. Bicycling, even in a motor-vehicle-free nirvana, can be time-consuming, arduous, and uncomfortably sensitive to weather conditions. When it’s a nice day, however, it’s a joy to be outside, moving, using your body. Bicycle advocates who do not emphasize that more bicycle infrastructure permits joyful bicycle riding at will are like contraception advocates who fail to mention that birth control can enable more joyful sex.

So, as an advocate, I will confess that my ultimate goal is to get more people on bicycles, because it’s fun to ride and I want to share that with others. My goal is greater than providing people with an alternative way to run errands. The whole point of commuting by bicycle, as I see it, is to allow more of that joy into your life, substituting the autonomy and physical pleasure of bicycle riding for either a dull and listless mass-transit journey or an expensive and alienating motor vehicle trip.

Poor Infrastructure Is Everywhere

Folks complain about lack of safe bicycling conditions to justify more infrastructure spending. “Ordinary” people (women, not young men) don’t get in the bicycle saddle because it is not perceived as a safe way to get around. So in order to get the bicycle mode-share numbers up, authorities ought to provide safe ways for these people to travel.

But this argument holds true for pretty much all forms of transportation. Generally, infrastructure everywhere, especially in low-income areas, is degraded. Walking conditions are terrible, with poor-quality sidewalks, lack of street trees, lack of crosswalks, lack of amenities along the route, lack of adequate lighting at night, and speeding traffic close at hand. Frequent curb cuts and front parking lots create dangerous mid-block car crossings for people on foot and elongate potentially attractive windows from window-shoppers walking by. I don’t have to mention the depressing number of people on foot killed by vehicles failing to yield while turning into crosswalks. If conditions for people on foot are poor, and pretty much everyone has feet, why should we expect anything better for people on two wheels?

This argument can even be extended to facilities for motor vehicles. What Charles Marohn calls “stroads,” those 45-mph stretches of county roads that traditionally stretch between the town limits and the highway exit, are extremely poorly designed for automobiles, as the only safe way to make necessary left turns is to install a traffic signal that slows all traffic to a stop at the interchange with each strip mall.

Moving on to the question of why in the face of such complete degradation it should be important to get more people into the bicycle saddle, I can assure you that the answer, in perfect sincerity, writes itself. We need the bicycle because a person on a bicycle can maintain the pedestrian perspective that lets cities unwind into endless strands of enriching streetscape while traveling five times faster (therefore further) than the person on foot.

Shortcomings of Bicycle Infrastructure

Here are three things to keep in mind about bicycle infrastructure as it relates to advocacy efforts. I am not complaining about bike lanes and bridge crossings. I am not complaining even about shared lanes and onstreet bike lanes. However I believe that blogs and bicycle news sources, like Streetsblog, are biased toward infrastructure and away from ordinary people. Partly this is because infrastructure is generally publicly funded and has a set of news hooks (meetings, installation, openings) associated with it; partly this is because it is seen as universally applicable and therefore interesting to people who live far away and won’t use it. I fear that news organizations’ natural emphasis on paint and concrete leads people to believe that infrastructure is what will get people on bicycles.

The first thing to remember about infrastructure is that the only group who can install bike infrastructure is the authorities. Ordinary people and advocates for people on bicycles can’t install bike infrastructure. When advocates set infrastructure as their number one priority, that means that their number one priority is to petition the authorities, not to get more people on bicycles. I believe that the most effective way to get people on bicycles is to show them people like themselves on bicycles (this is the reason why Cycle Chic was an effective form of bicycle advocacy; it made bicycling an aspirational activity for a certain group of stylish people).

For someone like me who enjoys bicycling, Adonia Lugo’s report on diversity in bicycle advocacy is so welcome because it shows what individual people are doing to spread the word about bicycling. I appreciate reading about how other enthusiastic people create real opportunities to support people who bike and share their enthusiasm. I confess that my own personal path of bicycle advocacy has wound through many boring community meetings, and that I doubt my effectiveness as an advocate.

Second, infrastructure is expensive to authorities, and therefore its placement is not value-free. Infrastructure–whether bus lines, subways, highways and interchanges, or protected bicycle lanes–comes at a cost. Paid workers have to drive the thermoplast truck or pour the concrete. This means that infrastructure will go where authorities want it, not necessarily where local residents want it. Authorities must comply with larger-scale regulations and goals and can’t just replace automobile parking with a bike lane, or widen an intersection to place a roundabout.

In addition, the fact that bicycle infrastructure costs money means that it is subject to a “rollout” model; each block of protected lane or thermoplast stripe costs additional money. Cash-constrained authorities will put the infrastructure where they think it is best placed, or where there is dedicated funding to pay for it.

Third, what makes the bicycle a remarkable machine is how little infrastructure it needs. People on bicycles don’t need rails on the streets, they don’t need elaborate traffic control systems, they don’t need merge ramps, they don’t need parking structures. They don’t even need elevated ways. What we call bicycle infrastructure is not there to encourage bicycling, it’s there to keep motorists from discouraging bicycling. This insight contradicts the idea that bicycle infrastructure should measure up to some form of “cost-benefit” analysis. The costs of bicycle infrastructure are the costs of allowing motor vehicles to travel without hindrance from bicycles; the benefits go to the same motor vehicles.

Points two and three together remind us that as authorities embrace the concept of requiring bicycles to have their own infrastructure, they will install that infrastructure to reinforce the biases of planners and other shadowy, unaccountable officials. My neighbors and I, though we inhabit a gridded paradise at the northern end of Manhattan, are unable to effect a comprehensive bicycle infrastructure plan that would allow people on bikes to travel easily and conveniently in all cardinal directions and access the bridges to the Bronx and New Jersey without difficulty. Instead, we have a half-hearted implementation of a Bicycle Master Plan that dates back to the 20th century. We get the infrastructure that we are told we should have, an infrastructure which takes for granted the primacy of motor vehicle traffic and is therefore inefficient for bicycles.

I confess that what I hear about the Dutch system of bicycle infrastructure doesn’t make me feel much better. They have a book of standards there that is better suited for bicycling, yes. But in everything I read about how the Dutch authorities implement those standards, there is no discussion of public participation. I enjoy bicycling, yes, and I value the chance to ride my bicycle safely, but I also value the opportunity to discuss my neighborhood and potential improvements to it with my neighbors.

There is no venue for discussion of the relative values of bicycling and motoring for getting around in our dense neighborhood, or of the justice of our neighborhood being the de facto doorstep for people driving to midtown Manhattan or New Jersey. I don’t think there can be such a venue unless groups like the ones Ms. Lugo profiles take root among my neighbors.

Bicycling by my lights is an affirmative choice

Bicycling by my lights is an affirmative choice. I choose to bicycle when I could take the subway or bus. In New York City, there aren’t that many of us. Many bicycle advocates work for making bicycling a default choice, which I have heard referred to as a “vacuum cleaner” approach, where bicycles are appliances like vacuum cleaners. Everyone has one, and nobody thinks very much about them.

As I get older, I find myself more drawn to my own peculiarities, shading in the twists and turns of my personality, and reveling more in what makes me different from other people. Clearly, bicycling to and from work has the potential to be one of these differences. I love it; it keeps my energy up and my heart strong. I get to and from work faster than I would otherwise, with the help of the Q44 bus to traverse the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge.

So my inclination as an advocate, who wants to make it easy and natural for anyone to leap on a bicycle, is leavened by my sheer delight in choosing to bicycle. The delight is largely in the choice and in the self-identification, however, because often the actual act of bicycling is fraught with difficulty and physical feats, which must be repeated regularly. I come home several times a week amped up on adrenaline from the last 15 minutes of my ride, from Boston Road west to St Nicholas Avenue, and it takes me a couple minutes to calm down. Even with that caveat, the riding is still worth it.

When I read Elly Blue’s articles, I always cheer, because she seems to nail the excitement of bicycling without needing to weigh it down with sanctimonious talk about how bicycling must be for everyone. She clearly lays out the fun of bicycling as an affirmative choice, as something special to do, as something that has its own special rewards.

Am I an outlier? I see the attraction in being in the vanguard of a large crowd, but as I get older, that attraction gets less important. The important thing is that I am true to myself and true to the people I hold dear. So when I read Elly Blue on how much she likes hills, I count myself as one of her true believers. Sure, we can revise our cities to create bike elevators on all hills, tunnels to avoid bad weather, gentle slopes for junior tykes on bikes, and protected lanes that are safely insulated from highway travel by grassy verges. And I guess in the fuzzy future, I am all for that. But in the interim, someone has to bike, here, and I volunteer. I want to be out there on the streets.

Portland Bicycling Plateau

According to Bike Portland, reporting on a Portland City Auditor survey, the number of bike commuters is stuck at a plateau. In the year since the original post was put together (and I started writing this post), nothing has changed. Why is this? What does it say about bicycle advocacy and livable-streets advocacy, not only in Portland, but in New York and elsewhere?

Either effective advocacy is needed to resist countervailing forces and keep the “wheel turning” at the same speed, or advocacy as practiced is somewhat ineffective. It’s certainly hard to see how it is helping to generate more riders, unless you redefine the definition of rider. It’s possible that there is a change in the profile of riders so that there are more people riding to do errands, for instance, than driving to work. But that seems like a small victory for advocates.

I broke out my theory of Portland’s rise in cycling mode share in an earlier post: folks who moved to Portland to lead a bikey-lifestyle made up the bump in mode share in the mid 2000s, then as the city’s charms became more widely known, immigrants were less likely to be moving to bicycle, and at the same time, the previous bike-riding immigrants were regressing to the mean in terms of bicycle use.

Here are some possible reasons for the inability of local bicycling advocates to raise the number of Portland bicyclists off its plateau.

Other modes of transport have advanced over bicycling, becoming more effective and attractive, in the same time frame.

Portland’s municipal efforts to promote cycling have become ineffective.

Portland’s bicycle advocates are ineffective at getting people into the saddle.

Portland’s bicycle advocates have overstated the attraction of bicycling to most of the population.

A fixed proportion of the population is willing to consider bicycling, and that limit has been reached.

There is not enough of something, perhaps protected bike lanes or pedestrianized streets. Some threshold must be crossed to get people into the saddle in greater numbers than at present.

Cultural factors are to blame; Oregonians are not really like Danes and not likely to get in the saddle.

Poor People and Bicycling

Poor people don’t bike, according to this this Citylab article from earlier this year. Why not?

Most obviously, for the same reasons as rich people. It would be good if researchers (and commenters, of course) could avoid the fundamental attribution error, where rich people like the commenter describe themselves as au fait with the current options of transport, but describe poor people as hostage to poor information about bicycle options or commute time.

Degradation of the built environment. The streets and roads in poor neighborhoods have been redesigned over years to make them less useful for pedestrians and bicyclists and more useful for cars. See this Invisible Cyclist blog post, about how bike-share programs were never designed with equity or social justice in mind, for more details on how exactly this works.

Poor people’s jobs are further away. Rich people have the means to be able to move closer to where they work, taking on one-time costs of moving as well as more expensive costs for groceries, day care and entertainment. Poor people working for low wages can’t afford to shift their residence to somewhere nearer, and they also may not be willing to move for a less secure, less desirable job. In addition, poor people are more dependent on others who may not be able to move. What looks like a person’s quixotic decision to stay in one place far away from a low-paying job may be a calculated decision that takes advantage of relatives, low cost day care, or a partner or spouse’s opportunities.

Who is the marginal person on a bike?

Looking through the Dill study on the four types of people and their inclination to get on bicycles, it seems as if the respondents were primed to consider safety above other reasons to bicycle. The question I have is whether perception of risk is the most important factor to determine whether people are cycling or not. According to the estimable Hembrow, “If a city makes cycling pleasant, convenient, attractive and safe then more people will cycle, regardless of difficulties…”

Piling on, I question how useful it is to predict the existence of a statistical group that is large and amorphous enough to comprise more than 50% of the population. Remember, the “Interested but Concerned” group in Portland is larger than the entire population of women in that city. Yes, there is value in portraying bicycling just to get around as a practice appealing to a majority of the population, and not just a fringe group. As bicycle advocates, however, we should already believe this.

And further, the study is not longitudinal, to determine whether participants changed their group affiliations over time. Another more general point is that there was no attempt to use factor analysis to break down affiliations in terms of more basic factors (or responses to particular questions).

My question instead is this: Who is the marginal person on a bicycle? What are some of the characteristics of the person who just got in the saddle today?

Thinking about the question of bicycle mode share from this marginal perspective, it occurred to me that Portland’s bike boom might as well be the result of new residents moving in with the intention of moving to a city where they could ride a bicycle every day. This would serve to increase the mode share. After a couple years, I posit, two follow-on effects happened: Portland became more attractive to bohemians of all stripes (credit Portlandia, not just bicycle lovers, reducing the boost to bicycling numbers from new residents, and the people who moved to Portland to ride bikes regressed back to the population mean in terms of their bicycle behavior, getting nicer houses outside of biking distance, or buying automobiles.

Taking the marginal idea further, it would appear from my Portland theory that the marginal bicyclist was for a time most likely to be a new resident. What are some other groups that could become good sources for marginal bicyclists? Off the top of my head, here are a couple possibilities, of varying likelihood.

Parolees and ex-convicts

Senior-center participants

High schoolers

Community college students

New parents

Residents of particular neighborhoods

Workers at certain employers (or city, state employees)

Unemployed people

Library users

Let’s leave the creation and deployment of a marketing campaign to push bicycling to any of these groups for a later time. I believe that readers can visualize the idea of such a campaign and some of its likely results perfectly easily without actually going to the trouble of creating such a campaign.

Bicycling in the Secret City

To the question of to what degree safety improvements can trigger a rise in bicycling, I would like to add these thoughts based on my experience at the Secret City.

I spent nearly a year among 15,000 other people, mostly servicemembers, in a desert location. I went out every other afternoon to bicycle around the back of the airfield, fighting the north wind constantly. I would race the jets taking off on the runway just a couple hundred meters off to my left. Parking was a dream, with wooden racks placed in front of every destination. I even used a cable lock!

Bicycles were plentiful, mostly department-store mountain-bike models. Private motor vehicles were forbidden. All drivers needed additional layers of certification beyond a traditional US drivers’ license before they could get out on the road. Crashes were investigated thoroughly and those at fault were held accountable. It sounds like an idyllic paradise for bicycling, and in many respects, it was, except for mode share: there were never more than 5% of the people bicycling.

I think this can be largely explained by noncommissioned officers’ reluctance to let servicemembers move around without accountability, and part in the servicemembers’ reluctance to move around without being correctly accounted for. There was no command emphasis on bicycling as an alternative to being driven around in motor vehicles. But in the real world, outside the Secret City, where do the authorities actually promote bicycling instead of other means of transportation?

The ultimate urban utility bike?

I am not going to presume that I am in the same league as Bike Snob when it comes to snarky putdowns of bicycle designs, and his analysis of the Oregon Manifest utility-bike competition is spot on.

Assume nevertheless that all entrants in the competition are functionally identical in bringing a “design-y” aesthetic to bicycle construction, as demanded by the rules of entry. The bikes all look kind of modishly similar, with subdued, metallic finishes, no derailleur, narrow saddles, flat bars to encourage hunching over, and a prescriptive set of angles, which make the bikes look as if they urge the rider to conform to them, instead of vice versa.

My version of the ultimate utility bike would have (just as a start):

  • A double kickstand for stability
  • A café lock for the rear wheel, mounted on the seat stay
  • A step-over frame like a mixte (in case I’m carrying a kid in a rear seat)
  • Easy-to-replace parts, like rim brakes, 26″ wheels with Schraeder valves, and derailleurs
  • A permanent rear rack with a mount for a rear light
  • Room for a U-lock bracket on the seatpost
  • Fenders front and rear
  • Trailer hitchings on the rear axle
  • Two-sided pedals so I can use cleated shoes when I want

Manufacturing and distributing a bike that is designed intentionally not to meet the utilitarian needs of a broad section of consumers is perfectly reasonable as a business strategy, but I wouldn’t call such a product a “utility” bike. I’m wary of bikes with too many custom parts; when one breaks, the whole assemblage might need to be replaced because it’s impossible to find a replacement for the broken part that is compatible with its complement. This is perilously close to the “bicycle-shaped object” conundrum that is found at the other end of bicycle marketing. In that case, the bicycle is so poorly designed, quality replacement parts cannot make up for the poor quality of the existing parts that they are being bolted on to.

My fixed-wing bike is packed and ready to fly; US$62 to mail it, however!

The bike has kept me sane these last six months, so I have mixed
emotions about packing it up and sending it home, away from the secret
city. I’d hope to have other sources of sanity when I get home, but
what am I going to do in the in-between time?

Friday night I broke down in a sudden fit of clarity and made a list,
with “clean bike” and “pack bike” down for Saturday and “mail bike”
for Sunday. The greatest accomplishments always wind down with a
whimper, yes? In this case, it was a frustrating 500-meter ride back
from the rec center to the tent. The rear wheel needs a little
attention: there’s a bump in the tire from the last time I put air in
it. it’s the kind of thing that makes a good fitness ride frustrating:
going bump-bump-bump down the road.

So last night I cleaned the whole vehicle, prying the clods of dirt
out of the bottom of the front fork, and reaching in with the old
toothbrush to wipe off the hubs. Then I packed it back into the box in
which it arrived, and I must have done it right because the axles push
into the exact same holes on the same sides of the box as they did
previously. Bamse and Peg went in as well, in the little box with the
tire gauge and 15 mm box wrench.

And this morning I took the box and a chair down to the post office to
mail it home. For some reason, it couldn’t go ‘Priority,’ so it ended
up costing $62 to mail, but the important thing is that it’s going
home at all, and with any luck I’ll get there before it does.